Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Elderly - How We're Failing the People Who Need Their Pets the Most

Any of you that know me personally know that I'm a low maintenance type of person. Everything I own has to be wash n'wear. My hair, my clothes, my dogs. I've always had short haired terriers and every once in awhile after they've rolled in something stinky, I toss them in the laundry sink and suds them up. Other than nail trimming, that's the grooming regime.

So it came as a huge surprise when I fostered a puppy mill bichon frise last summer to learn how much I didn't know about dog grooming. It seemed like every time I turned around he was looking like a pitiful little dirtball. Our daily four mile hike in the woods required a half hour de-burring afterwards otherwise he spent the day looking sort of like a hedgehog. I got sticker shock when I found out the cost of professional grooming - more than several days worth of groceries for a lot of people.

These types of dogs (which for lack of a better term, I usually call small fluffies) are generally perfect for senior citizens. They are small, low shedding, pretty agreeable in temperament, and do not usually have the same high exercise requirements as the working terriers.  They fall into the "highly adoptable" category in our shelter and rescue system. Especially if they have come from a home environment (not a puppy mill) and are well-socialized and house broken.

Now, I am speaking from a Wisconsin perspective. And I would be interested to know if this phenomenon is happening elsewhere around the country.  When there are small fluffies with the above characteristics available in a brick and mortar shelter - they are usually adopted within a week, often within a day, and sometimes within an hour, of hitting the adoption floor. There may be several applications on one dog and there may be a lineup of people waiting to see that dog at opening time. They attract people to the shelter - kind of like a "door buster" special on Black Friday. So even though there may be only one small fluffy on the floor - the additional traffic generates other adoptions and retail sales in the shelter. Highly adoptables have no fear of being "euthanized" and most of the shelters wish there were a lot more of them.

So, back to my commentary from my last blog. Here's the scenario:

The small fluffies are owned by elderly folks in the city. The dog has a happy home and life, but then one day, maybe the owner needs a new prescription for their health or an extra trip to the doctor, or whatever. The dog is still well fed and healthy but the time between groomings often lapses into longer and longer spans. Pretty soon the dog is having that slightly neglected look. Plus it's hard with arthritic hands to brush coats and trim nails. The dog for whatever reason ends up at animal control. It is assumed to be abused and neglected. It is considered a "stray". Not a lost pet.

The elderly often:
1) have no computer or internet to check to see where the dog is
2) have no transportation
3) have poor English or poor hearing
4) do not have enough money to reclaim their dog (without sacrificing their rent, groceries, prescriptions, etc.)

And guess what - the dog comes off of stray hold and wham, bam, it's adopted to a nice, rich family in the suburbs.

I don't want to get into anecdotes here, for fear of identifying people, but I could fill a book with the stories that I've heard about how older people could not afford to reclaim their dog and were made to feel guilty and irresponsible.  So they just ask that someone would give their beloved dog a good home.

I find it embarrassing and inconceivable that we as a society allow this to happen. Need I say more?

Successful shelters and animal control facilities of the future will have services for seniors - volunteers and staff that are specifically trained to help seniors of all ethnicities  - whether it be with transportation, pet food and grooming "pantries", lost pet assistance,  and safe keeping for hospital stays.  Pet ownership has significant health and emotional benefits to seniors that has been well-documented in several studies. The goodwill that these services  generate will more than make up for the lost revenue from the small fluffies.


  1. Kathy - you make a really good point. I don't think it is just a Wisconsin issue either. These little dogs bring so much happiness to their elderly owners. It seems like there may be an opportunity to create an organization to help elderly folks care for these pets.

    As a pet sitter, I receive the odd call now and then from elderly folks needing dog walks for their pets but they can't afford the price. Perhaps there is opportunity for me too. Thanks for bring attention to this issue. It is a really important one.

    Too often the elderly are forgotten in our day-to-day lives. This is yet one more example.

  2. Kathy - I look forward to reading your comments and I find your insights to have great merit. Such interesting perspectives and ideas. We don't all have to agree on everything but we should all keep an open mind to new ideas. After all, that is the only way to learn and progress. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with other "animal people".

  3. What a brilliant idea. Shelters that demonstrate that they care for their pet parents are going to get more traffic. Period. Such a program would pay for itself in terms of increased adoptions, increased purchase of pet supplies, increase publicity, etc.

  4. so true something like this needs to be done elderly people need something to care for to give them something to live for so many of them are all alone with no family and all they have are thier pets hope this happens all over the country

  5. Increases not only in the business aspects of adoptions, pet supplies, and publicity, but in happiness, bonding, and helping. Why not have animal facility or even animal business volunteers like, groomers, pet supply stores, vet offices, deliver these kinds of services for pets to those in need? Have Internet training available for certification for areas that don't have shelters or training available. Maybe an after school program to work within the communities. Good summer program. Reaching out to help pets and people.....awesome!

  6. What a sad state of affairs to make the elderly feel guilty or irresponsible when they cannot take care of their beloved pet without some outside assistance, especially when they can give their pets something that is in short supply these days...time and attention. And their pets give them a reason to live and to get and stay well. Along with Meals On Wheels we need an "elderly pet assistance on wheels", where help with basic grooming needs, getting pet food if needed, and vet visits could be covered by volunteers who enjoy older people and love animals.